Celebrate Spanish Language Day!

Lovers of Spanish, did you know there’s a special day set aside to honor your favorite language? Observed throughout the Spanish-speaking world, Spanish Language Day (El Día del Idioma Español) – celebrated on April 23 – aims to highlight the richness and vitality of the Spanish language. Cultural centers and libraries throughout Spain and Latin America will mark the occasion with readings, films, storytelling, book fairs, and children’s workshops throughout the day.

The date chosen for Spanish Language Day commemorates the death of one of the most significant and best-known Spanish language authors, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Literary scholars consider Don Quixote, Cervantes’ classic work penned in the 17th century, to be one of the most important pieces of fiction of all time.

El Día del Idioma Español dates back to 1926, when Valencian writer Vicente Clavel Andrés first proposed the idea of a special day dedicated to celebrating literature. The tradition began in Valencia and gradually spread throughout all of Spain. In 1964, the celebration was adopted by all Spanish-speaking countries.

Some useful articles:
Linguistic Features of Rioplatense (River Plate) Spanish
The Future of Spanish in the United States
Spanish in the World
New Spanish Spelling Reforms from the RAE
Castilian Spanish Versus Latin American Spanish
The Influence of Arabic on the Spanish Language
10 Free Online Resources for Spanish Language Learners

The Languages of Spain

The first language that springs to mind when one thinks of Spain is – not surprisingly – Castilian Spanish, the country’s official language. However, there are actually a number of other languages and dialects spoken there, a few of which have attainted co-official status in certain regions: Catalan/Valencian, Basque, Galician, and Aranese.

Here’s a brief snapshot of some of the languages spoken in Spain.

Castilian Spanish

Castilian Spanish – so named for its roots in the region of Castile – emerged from Spain’s many regional languages and dialects to become the primary language of the nation. Castilian Spanish was later brought to the New World through the colonization efforts of the Spanish, where the language enjoyed widespread adoption throughout the Americas.


Catalan, a Romance language spoken in Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands, currently boasts some 12 million speakers. Catalan has achieved broad usage as an everyday language in these areas. The language has become the medium of instruction in a number of schools, and it’s utilized to a large extent in government administration and the media. The version of the language spoken in the Community of Valencia is known as Valencian. Though some Valencians contest that their language is separate from Catalan, the majority of linguists consider it a dialect.


Spoken by approximately three million people in the northwest corner of Spain, Galician shares many linguistic features with Portuguese. The two languages are more or less mutually intelligible, but Galician relies on Spanish orthographic conventions. In fact, scholars have been debating for some time as to whether Galician and Portuguese are actually two distinct languages or just dialects of the same language.


Linguists consider the Basque language, spoken in the north of Spain in Basque Country, a language isolate (i.e. a language with no known linguistic relationship to another language). As such, Basque shares virtually zero mutual intelligibility with Castilian Spanish and the other languages of Spain, which all belong to the Romance language family.


Aranese – a language spoken in the Aran Valley of Catalonia in northeastern Spain – shares co-official status with Catalan in that region. Approximately 90% of those living in the Aran Valley can understand Aranese, and some 65% of inhabitants can speak the language.

Read Differences between Latin American Spanish and Castilian Spanish.

Linguistic Features of Rioplatense (River Plate) Spanish

The dialect of Spanish spoken in and around Buenos Aires, Argentina is known as Rioplatense or River Plate Spanish. The dialect’s sphere of influence extends to other major cities within the River Plate region including La Plata, Santa Fe, Rosario, Paraná and Mar del Plata in Argentina, and Montevideo in Uruguay. While significant dialectical differences exist between the Spanish spoken in the various regions of Argentina, most foreigners equate “Argentine Spanish” with the Rioplatense version.

The following linguistic features set Rioplatense Spanish apart from other dialects spoken in Latin America and Spain.

Voseo. In Rioplatense Spanish, the second person singular pronoun is completely replaced by vos, a linguistic phenomenon known as voseo. The conjugation of the second person form in the present indicative tense and the imperative mood also changes [Example: tú hablas (you speak) becomes vos hablás, dime tu nombre (tell me your name) becomes decime tu nombre]. Click here for more information on voseo.

Rehilamiento or sheísmo. The linguistic feature known as rehilamiento or sheísmo refers to a characteristic of Rioplatense Spanish in which the sounds “ll” and “y” are pronounced as [ʃ] or [ʒ] (like the sounds in the English words mission and measure). As a result, the word pollo (chicken) is pronounced “po-sho” or “po-zho” while playa (beach) sounds like “plah-sha” or “pla-zha.”

Appearance of numerous European loanwords. The great wave of European immigration to Argentina at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century led to the incorporation of a number of loanwords from Italian, French, German and English. Traces of Italian are particularly noticeable in everyday words, e.g. morfi (food).

Unique intonation influenced by Italian. Italian also left its mark on the Rioplatense dialect in terms of speakers’ unique intonation. Many people describe the sound of Rioplatense Spanish as Spanish spoken with an Italian accent.

Aspiration of the letter “s” at the end of a syllable. The letter “s” often seems to disappear in Rioplatense Spanish [Example: the word “fresco” is pronounced “freh-ko”]. Some linguists feel that this feature of the dialect is attributable to the influence of Italian as well.

Use of Lunfardo. Rioplatense Spanish is peppered with numerous words and phrases from the colorful slang known as Lunfardo. One of the features of Lunfardo is the use of vesre, a form of wordplay that reverses the order of syllables in a word [Example: caféfeca (coffee)].

Influence of indigenous languages such as Araucano, Quechua and Guaraní. The languages of the various indigenous peoples of Argentina have shaped the Spanish language in this country. Examples of indigenous words that have entered into Rioplatense Spanish are the word tambo meaning dairy farm, which comes from Quechua, and the Araucano word laucha meaning mouse.

“Refudiate” Chosen as 2010 Word of the Year

The New Oxford American Dictionary mulled over pages’ worth of new candidates for the 2010 Word of the Year. Although the technology sector contributed a considerable number of terms to 2009’s field of contenders, this year seemed more heavily influenced by politics, the economy, and current events with words like “Tea Party,” “bankster,” “double-dip” and “top kill.” Technology did manage to chip in with words like “webisode,” “crowdsourcing” and “retweet.”

So, which new word garnered the top spot? “Refudiate” – a word coined by controversial U.S. politician Sarah Palin – was bestowed the title of 2010 Word of the Year by the lexicographers at Oxford. The word, a verb “used loosely to mean ‘reject,’” resulted from a blending of the words “refute” and “repudiate.”

For a complete list of the words considered for the 2010 Word of the Year along with their definitions, have a look at this article from the Oxford University Press blog.

Endangered language opens window on to past

An endangered Greek dialect which is spoken in north-eastern Turkey has been identified by researchers as a “linguistic goldmine” because of its startling closeness to previous forms of the Greek language.

Fieldwork examining Romeyka, a little-studied form of Greek still spoken in the area around Trabzon, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, has revealed a number of features that it shares with the Koine (or common) Greek of Hellenistic and Roman times.

For linguists, the discovery presents a rare opportunity to map out the features not just of another living language, but of a dialect closer than anything else still living to that spoken at the height of Greek influence across Asia Minor, 2,000 years ago.

The link was (re)discovered by Dr. Ioanna Sitaridou, a lecturer in Romance Philology at the University of Cambridge and Fellow and Director of Studies in Linguistics at Queens’ College, Cambridge. Her initial findings are reported in the University’s research magazine, Research Horizons, and a short film about her research is also being released on the University’s YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/cambridgeuniversity) today.

“Although Romeyka can hardly be described as anything but a Modern Greek dialect, it preserves an impressive number of grammatical traits that add an Ancient Greek flavour to the dialect’s structure – traits that have been completely lost from other Modern Greek varieties,” Dr. Sitaridou said. “What these people are speaking is a variety of Greek far more archaic than other forms of Greek spoken today.”

Until medieval times, the Black Sea lay at the heart of the Greek-speaking world. It was colonised by the Greeks in the 8th and 7th centuries BC and immortalised in Greek mythology.

Despite millennia of change in the surrounding area, people in the isolated region still speak the language. One reason is that Romeyka speakers are devout Muslims, and were therefore exempt from the large-scale population exchange between Greece and Turkey that took place under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

Using religion as a defining criterion to resettle Christians in Greece and Muslims in Turkey, almost two million people were forced to move. The result was an obligatory exodus of all Christian Greek-speakers from north-eastern Turkey, leaving the speakers of Romeyka relatively isolated from both Turkish (albeit clearly not the case for the younger generations), but also sealed off from Pontic Greek spoken by the resettled Christians in Greece and elsewhere in the world.

Dr. Sitaridou, whose great-grandparents were from the region, is now reporting the results of the first phase of a project to uncover the secrets of this little-studied dialect.

She first became aware that Romeyka might be of special importance after Prof. Peter Mackridge, who is Emeritus Professor of Modern Greek at the University of Oxford and has carried out pioneering research since the 1980s, signalled to her that her work on Romance infinitives may have a parallel in Romeyka. Astonishingly enough, Romeyka had retained the infinitive – the basic, uninflected form of the verb. This was part of Ancient Greek, but has disappeared from the medieval and modern language. All the more astonishing, Romeyka has developed some other quirky infinitival constructions that have never been observed before – only in the Romance languages are there parallel constructions.

Her work involves undertaking field trips to villages in Pontus, often isolated enclaves where Romeyka is spoken, and mapping the grammatical structure and variation in use. Information is gathered using audio and video recordings of the villagers telling stories, as well as through specially-structured questionnaires using state-of-the-art modern linguistic theory.

Ultimately, the work seeks to explain how Pontic Greek evolved. “We know that Greek has been continuously spoken in Pontus since ancient times and can surmise that its geographic isolation from the rest of the Greek-speaking world is an important factor in why the language is as it is,” said Dr. Sitaridou, recipient of a Stanley J. Seeger Visiting Research Fellowship in Hellenic Studies at Princeton University (Spring 2011).

“What we don’t yet know is whether Romeyka emerged in exactly the same way as other Greek dialects, but later developed its own unique characteristics which just happen to resemble archaic Greek. On the other hand, it may have developed from an earlier version of Greek that was different to the rest of the Greek dialects, which in turn explains the archaic features.”

Her latest report comes with a warning: Repeated waves of emigration from Trabzon, coupled with the influence of the dominant Turkish-speaking majority, have left the dialect vulnerable to extinction. UNESCO has already designated Pontic Greek as “definitely endangered”.

“With as few as 5,000 speakers left in the area, before long Romeyka could be more of a heritage language than a living vernacular,” Dr. Sitaridou added. “With its demise would go an unparalleled opportunity to unlock how the Greek language has evolved.”

Source: University of Cambridge.


How old is language?

Although this question is still being debated, most linguists assume that the full language capacity had evolved by 100,000 BC. This is when modern humans (homo sapiens sapiens) evolved in Africa with a modern skull shape (indicating modern brain function) and a modern vocal tract which would allow these people to articulate all the sounds found in modern languages. Some anthropologists speculate that language or parts of the language ability may have developed earlier, but there is no firm consensus yet

Oldest written and spoken form
If you’re counting absolute oldest, probably Sumerian or Egyptian wins because they developed a writing system first (both start appearing in about 3200 BC). If you’re counting surviving languages, Chinese is often cited (first written in 1500 BC), but Greek is a possible tie because it was written in Linear B beginning ca. 1500 BC.*

Writing is not equal to speaking.

In 3200 BC, there were many, many languages spoken besides Sumerian and Egyptian, but they weren’t fortunate enough to have a writing system. These languages are just as old. To take one interesting case, the Albanian language (spoken north of Greece) was not written down until about the 15th century AD, yet Ptolemy mentions the people in the first century BC. The linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests that Albanians were a distinct people for even longer than that. So Albanian has probably existed for several millennia, but has only been written down for 500 years. With a twist of fate, Albanian might be considered very “old” and Greek pretty “new”.

Source: Linguistlist.org


Endangered Languages Open Database Launched Online

An open database of endangered languages has been launched by researchers in the hope of creating a free, online portal that will give people access to the world’s disappearing spoken traditions.

The website has been developed by researchers at the World Oral Literature Project, based at the University of Cambridge, and is now available at its website, http://www.oralliterature.org/.

It includes records for 3,524 world languages, from those deemed “vulnerable”, to those that, like Latin, remain well understood but are effectively moribund or extinct.

Researchers hope that the pilot database will enable them to “crowd-source” information from all over the world about both the languages themselves and the stories, songs, myths, folklore and other traditions that they convey.

Users can search by the number of speakers, level of endangerment, region or country. In the United Kingdom, the site lists 21 disappearing languages, ranging from the relatively well known, like Scots and Welsh, to obscure forms such as Old Kentish Sign Language.

Where possible, the research team has also included links to online resources and recordings so that users can find out more. Their hope is that by making an early version of the database open to all, more people will come forward with information and references to recordings that they have missed.

Dr Mark Turin, Director of the World Oral Literature Project, said: “We want this database to be a dynamic and open resource, taking advantage of online technology to create a collaborative record that people will want to contribute to.”

At present, the world has more than 6,500 living languages, of which up to half will cease to exist as spoken vernaculars by the end of the century. In most cases, their disappearance is a by-product of globalisation, or rapid social and economic change. The World Oral Literature Project aims to document and make accessible these spoken traditions before they are lost without record.

Three existing datasets are raising awareness about the number of languages under threat: the online Ethnologue, the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger and innovative work by conservation biologist Professor William Sutherland in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge. Each, however, evaluates the risk and the problem differently, with varying results.

“While some severely endangered languages have been well documented, others, which may appear to be less at risk, have few, if any, records,” Dr Turin said. “Here in Cambridge we are interested not only in language endangerment levels but also in what might be called a ‘documentation index’. To this end, we are locating references to and recordings of oral literatures in collections around the world.”

“At the moment if you’re a researcher, a member of an endangered speech community or just an interested member of the public, there is no way to pull all these useful but disparate resources together in one place. We wanted to create a resource that does just that, and also build something that can be developed and expanded further to encourage other people to submit additional information. At present, the database allows us to pose comparative research questions about which languages are closest to extinction and where the records are.”

Of the 3,524 languages listed, about 150 are in an extremely critical condition. In many of these cases, the number of known living speakers has fallen to single figures, or even just one.

Examples include the Southern Pomo language, spoken by Native Americans in parts of California; Gamilaraay, the language of the Kamilaroi of New South Wales; and the language of the Sami communities based in northwestern Russia.

The entries specific to the United Kingdom include Manx, Cornish and Old Kentish Sign Language – a precursor to the generic British version which Samuel Pepys, among others, referred to in his famous diary.

Another disappearing oral tradition in the United Kingdom is Polari, a form of slang once used by the likes of actors and circus or fairground communities, and which was then adopted by gay subcultures as a type of code language.

Elsewhere in Europe, the endangered languages list includes a version of Low Saxon spoken in the north-eastern Netherlands; Mocheno (a Germanic language used in north Italy); and Istriot, which is spoken on the Croat coast and has about 1,000 speakers left.

The database also covers extinct languages about which enough is known through existing records to render them visible. In some cases this may be because the speech form died out very recently, as is the case with Laghu, which was spoken on Santa Isabel in the Solomon Islands and disappeared in 1984. In other scenarios, the language ceased to be spoken long ago but is still well known or used in a specialised setting, as with both Latin and Ancient Greek.

The database is being launched to coincide with a workshop at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge on December 10 and 11, which will bring together researchers to discuss some of the key issues surrounding the dissemination of oral literature through traditional and online media.

More information about both the database and the World Oral Literature project can be found at: http://oralliterature.org/ The pilot database was made possible by a Small Research Grant from the British Academy with additional funding from the Chadwyck-Healey Charitable Trust.

Source: University of Cambridge

Also read: Will 90% of the languages cease to exist? and Number of Living Languages

The bilingual brain

Children learning two languages from birth achieve the same basic milestones (e.g., their first word) as monolinguals do, but they may use different strategies for language acquisition. Although bilinguals tend to have smaller vocabularies in each language than do children who know one language, bilinguals may have an advantage when it comes to certain nonverbal cognitive tasks.  Bilinguals tend to perform better than monolinguals on exercises that require blocking out distractions and switching between two or more different tasks. The authors note that “when a bilingual speaks two languages regularly, speaking in just one of these languages requires use of the control network to limit interference from the other language and to ensure the continued dominance of the intended language.”  The bilingual advantage in attention and cognitive control may have important, long-term benefits. Preliminary evidence even suggests that their increased use of these systems may protect bilinguals against Alzheimer’s.

The differences between monolinguals and bilinguals have important clinical implications. For example, vocabulary tests are commonly used in psychologists’ offices and bilinguals’ scores may not accurately reflect their language ability. According to the authors, “Bilinguals who score below average may be inaccurately diagnosed with impairment when none is present, or could be diagnosed as ‘normal for a bilingual’ even though impairment is in fact present and treatment is needed.” Clinicians need to be aware of the potential to misinterpret bilinguals’ test scores. Developing tests that specifically target bilingual populations may result in better outcomes for these patients.

Source: Psychological Science in the Public Interest

Other articles you may be interested in:
Is Being Bilingual Good for Your Brain?
Are You Bilingual? Two Languages May Delay Alzheimer’s

When was the first Spanish Grammar Book published?

In 1492, Antonio de Nebrija published Gramática de la lengua castellana, the first grammar book of the Spanish language. Works had previously been published on Latin usage, such as Lorenzo Valla’s De Elegantiis Latinae Linguae (1471), but Gramática was the first book to focus on the study of the rules of a Western European language besides Latin.

Digital version of Gramática de la lengua castellana.